THEn recent years it’s become fashionable for sport documentaries to include a self-referential element in which the protagonist reviews footage of their own triumphs and disasters. The facial reactions in these segments often say more than hours of talking head analysis ever could: the vision of Michael Jordan, tablet in lap, choking up with laughter as Gary Payton’s account of the 1996 NBA finals series is played back to him remains the defining image of 2020’s The Last Dance. For Shark, premiering in the US on Tuesday night, directors Jason Hehir (who also directed The Last Dance) and Thomas Odelfelt replace the tablet with a laptop kept open on a small side table next to the seated Greg Norman.
The Australian has never rewatched the infamous final round of the 1996 Masters, in which he relinquished a six-shot lead to surrender the green jacket to arch-rival Nick Faldo: “There’s no need to,” he says curtly in the opening minutes of Shark. And when the footage of that fabled choke – still the biggest final-day lead ever blown in a PGA tour tournament – starts rolling on the laptop, you soon begin to understand why. The pain of every slice, hook, undercooked putt and moment of self-doubt is still very much with him, 25 years later.
We see him three-putting the green on the 11th hole; we see him coming up short with his approach shot on the 12th, finding the water, and ending with a double bogey; we re-watch Norman’s anguished collapse to the ground after a chip for eagle on the 15th kisses the lip of the hole then just rolls wide. And then we see Norman, watching on in silence, shifting his weight in the chair, eyes glassy, swallowing his sighs. “Would my life be different today if I had a green jacket?” Norman asks rhetorically after the final-round playback concludes. “No. It would be beautiful to have in my trophy case, but it would not have changed one bit of my life. ” It’s the least convincing line in the whole film.
Norman’s final-day collapse at Augusta may now be the stuff of sporting legend, but what’s arguably less well remembered is the rich history of final-round failure that preceded the drama of 1996. Norman burst onto the PGA tour in the early 1980s, signaling his talent with a fourth-place finish at the 1981 Masters, his first spin around Augusta’s saintly turf. Norman’s Scandinavian mop, flashy pants, upright stance, easy swing, and commitment to attack made him instantly recognizable on the course. His blunt Australianness (“The Shark” was a nickname that stuck early, paying homage to a childhood spent growing up in the savage waters of far north Queensland) made him highly marketable off it, attracting the jealousy of less charismatic golfers at a time when big money was starting to roll into the sport for the first time and the commercial thirst for personality players was at a premium. Norman wanted to get a “complete hold” over the sport “on the golf course and off the golf course,” Faldo says.
By 1986, his objective was almost complete. Golf watchers had begun to think of the Australian as the natural heir to the greats of the previous generation, Jack Nicklaus in particular – and possibly even as the player who could ascend golf’s Everest and win all four majors in a single year. Norman led all four majors in 1986 after three rounds; in all but one, the British Open, he collapsed on the final day and finished runner-up. That year established his reputation as a 54-hole maestro who couldn’t get it done in the final 18, and the following year cemented it: in a playoff for the 1987 Masters, Larry Mize sank an improbable chip from the rough to leave Norman with a 45-foot putt to keep the contest alive. It drifted wide. “I went home and cried on the beach,” Norman says now. “All these questions go through your head for months and months. Maybe I should have put it in the middle of the green and had a 20-footer instead of a 45-footer, maybe I got ahead of myself thinking that it was an impossible chip [for Mize]. Those things have haunted me for a long time. “
A narrative has emerged that Norman was “snakebit,” fated by a uniquely malevolent fortune to lose in big tournaments to a sequence of improbable shots. In addition to the Mize chip, there was Bob Tway’s bunker shot at the 1986 PGA Championship, Robert Gomez’s fairway shot on the final hole at the 1990 Nestle Invitational at Bay Hill, and another bunker shot – this time from David Frost – on the final hole at the 1990 Zurich Classic in New Orleans. What Shark does well is put these miracle shots in context, showing the three Norman bogeys on the back nine that preceded the Mize chip, the 40 back nine he shot to set Tway up for triumph in 1986, and so on. Norman spent much of his playing days endorsing the fable of the snakebite: “I’m kind of like a fatalist, I believe that things happen for a reason,” he told former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke in a 1993 TV interview. Today he appears more sanguine: “You control your own destiny, you do your own thing,” he reflects in Shark. “You cannot control what other people do. You cannot influence what other people do. The only influence you can exert is what you do, yourself, in your shoes, with your golf clubs, with your score. ” And yet, this hour in Norman’s presence never quite dispels the sense that he still feels, at some level, that the golfing gods chose him for a special category of misery.
The pleasure of a documentary like Shark is not only in reliving, alongside Norman, the agony of all these collapses. He’s also eloquent on the high points, the moments during those charging final rounds when everything clicked. An example: when he reeled off four consecutive back-nine birdies on the final day at the 1986 Masters to recover from a disastrous start and pull within spitting distance of Nicklaus. “You’ve just got this freedom of mind, you’re happy and you just want to go,” Norman says. “You trust yourself, your swing is free, your mind is free, you see these shots, you execute them. You could even hit a leaf off the end of a tree if you wanted to. “
Norman lost to Nicklaus, 15 years his senior, on the final hole that day. But the bond between the two golfers – avatars of two adjoining generations – emerges as particularly influential in Shark. At Turnberry in 1986, Nicklaus offered Norman a “critical” piece of final-day advice that helped the Australian overcome the nerves accumulated through two successive big-tournament collapses and clinch his first major (“Greg, just think about grip pressure tomorrow. Just think about your grip pressure. “). And he was there again to counsel Norman through a slump in the early 1990s, advising him to practice and play with “purpose”: “If you’re going to the driving range, are you just going there to hit balls and feel sorry for yourself? Or do you have a purpose? ” Norman flew to Canada the next week and broke a 27-month PGA tour drought by winning the Canadian Open.
“He was like my father, my brother, my mentor,” Norman says. Faldo – the more conservative, less charismatic rival who ended his career with six majors to Norman’s two – also looms large throughout Shark, though the real contrast that emerges is not between the players past but the two men as they appear today: Faldo has softened into a jolly middle age, while Norman remains as whip-fit as during his playing days.
He has plenty to be thankful for: his post-playing career, taking in everything from golf course development to winemaking and the recent effort to launch a much-criticized Saudi-backed Asian professional tour, has been especially lucrative. But Shark leaves us with the sense that there’s still something missing, an emptiness inside that drives Norman on. Many of the film’s most memorable scenes show Norman back at Augusta today, playing 18 holes alone, heightening the sense that his greatest rival di lui was not Faldo or Nicklaus but himself. At the age of 67, Norman still looks as trim as he was in his pomp: the stance is as firm, the swing as free. Under gray skies, across a perfectly empty course, he replays all the clutch shots from his 1986, 1987, and 1996 collapses, and executes them perfectly. What if?